Sunday, May 15, 2016

Thanks to NBC!

Our story was profiled on the Today Show this morning and we are honored.

Particular thanks to Lwiro Sanctuary and Itsaso, Aggelos, Ben, and the whole NBC crew, and Richard Engel who made it all look easy.

And to Jef Dupain who put it all together over a laugh at Doug's Christmas party.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

All Grown Up

Through circumstances that I am not fully allowed to discuss (yet), I was given the opportunity this week to visit with the chimpanzees, living in Lwiro Sanctuary, that Adam and I quite literally risked our lives to save in 2009.

It had been a long day of filming, throughout which we had not had much control of our schedules or time, but we knew that it would culminate in a reunion with the Aketi 5 - Aketi Kigoma himself, Bolunga, Django Mayanga, Kathé, and Mangay.

We weren't sure entirely what to expect -- when I had brought the Aketi 5 to Lwiro in 2009, I had had the joy of seeing some of the chimpanzees that I had rescued during my time in Goma in 2005 and 2006-- they had definitely recognized me, coming to the bars of their enclosure without promise of food -- and outstretched their hands, reaching for me.  I had been unable to interact with them at all, however, because I could have transmitted diseases from the Aketi 5, who were in quarantine, essentially quarantining me as well.

Seven years had gone by, and honestly, half of my friends seem to barely recognize me when I'm back in the States, so my expectations were low with regard to a lot of fuss about our return.

While I feel like it's easy to rationalize for me, personally, there is obviously a part that is personally hard because, certainly with the chimpanzees that I have rescued and fostered, their faces are emblazoned in my brain and I feel like I could never forget them.

But reality sinks in, and even chimpanzee faces change immensely through the passage of time.

As we approached the enclosures, I worried whether I would be able to pick out the faces of my "kids" among the crowd.

Aketi came right up to the edge of his enclosure -- a cage that separated him, as a juvenile male, from the larger group for his own safety, along with other juveniles who would not be accepted by the alphas of the bigger community.

His face had only darkened slightly, and his eyes seemed smaller as his face had expanded, but there was for certain a familiarity around his eyes and mouth that helped me notice him immediately. Throughout the feeding time, despite the promise of rewards in other locations, he stayed in proximity of wherever we stood, gazing intently at us through the close bars.

Adult chimpanzees are incredibly dangerous, and I did not for a moment forget as the alpha of the juvenile groups continued to display, making himself piloerect and continuing to pound his feet on the ground and throw his weight against the bars.

Maybe the baby chimpanzee that I had rescued and cared for had grown up, and was potentially dangerous, but his eyes felt so familiar, and I let his outstretched hand connect with mine, and we sat, together, sharing the moment.

Mangay, on the other hand, who had been Polycarpe's ward, seemed much less intent on holding our attention, though I will report with delight that, within the juvenile group, he is as normal-acting a chimpanzee as one can be.  I cannot begin to describe how that makes me feel, worrying for him for so many nights and weeks, particularly when we were trying to integrate him unsuccessfully in with our DRC group, I feared that he was so traumatized that he would never be normal again.

Mangay, for those who don't remember, was not a well-adjusted chimpanzee, and was so young and sickly when he was confiscated that there was a serious doubt as to whether he would live.

Django Mayanga had already been integrated into the larger group, as had Kathé, and Bolungwa had even decided to take on the role of nanny, so when we saw her, she was caring for Clara's baby, Clarice.  They all seemed so happy, and certainly Django and Bolungwa came right over and solicited for our attention next to the fence despite the potential menace from more higher-ranking individuals within the group.

Django looked just the same, funny and suckling his lower lip, though his bald spot from the top of his head had spread out.  He was instantly recognizable. Bolungwa was more difficult from afar, as her face having had darkened.  But once she got close to the fence, the shape of her eyes, those big, liquid eyes, was so familiar.

When I watch the videos of these chimps as "children," when I had only a distant hope of getting them a better life, and an even more remote hope of getting them away from the cooking pot of Mister Moibi -- it makes me cry, if only because the things I had hoped for the most fervently that seemed the most out of reach have come true.

Of course I would wish that they could be back in the wild, but, without that as a option, the idea that they're actually safe and well cared for is so far beyond my most secret wishes, particularly during the most trying points of our trip to northern DRC.

I realize sometimes the role I have had to play at Lwiro, as 9 of the chimpanzees in their care (almost a quarter) came from "me," my self-involved way of referring to the various field seasons and impressive colleagues within them who helped to confiscate and care for them.

We spent the morning back at the chimpanzee enclosure, and, though I had promised Adam that we would not have any more 4am mornings, he completely went along with the plan to pack first at 4 and then spend all day with the chimps until it was time for the van to take us back to Bukavu.

During that time, I also got to spend time with Yongesa, Shege, and Kanabiro, several of the female chimpanzees from my time in Goma. They all had gotten so enormous, so dark-faced, and yet, while I stood at the windows of their enclosures, they clustered together, all reaching to be close to me.

My time as their chimpanzee mother is over, though I cherish those memories tremendously.  I did not go back to Lwiro to embrace the chimpanzees I once loved, holding them when they got scared, spending the largest part of most days covered in their feces and hands and feet.

But seeing them there, older, happier, safer -- knowing that I had the amazing opportunity to play a role in their survival -- brought tears in the mists of the early Bukavu morning.  It makes any suffering I have endured so worth it, and, despite the risk, I would do it all again.  As they look so much older, though, I realize that so much time has passed since those years in my 20s where their safety was my everything, even in the most unsafe of places.

I guess we have all come so far.

Returning to the Scene of the Crime

There are times when I would pay a million dollars to blend in.  All expats in most African countries are ogled, but many have the benefit of similarity, and, frankly, lots of local people cannot tell their white faces apart.

I have never had this problem, and coming to cities and countries where expats are not ubiquitous, the attention placed on me becomes hyperfocussed, a mix of intrigue and novelty as I stream by, ginger hair ablazing.

Without even overtly planning to, Adam and I were re-tracing our footsteps, revisiting the route taken during our great escape.

As we made our way through Goma to the port, heavy from our trouble at the border, the city in which I had spent so much time in 2005 and 2006 had grown past recognition.  The port, however, had not.  Weaving down toward the shore, I hoped our low-riding taxi would make it through the lava impediments, as goats climbed the rocky outjuttings to our right. Closer to the waters of Lake Kivu, motorcycles, cars, and laundry ladies lined up, washing their things in the water.

I had ridden this route many times by motorcycle when I had lived in the city, and I was flooded with happy memories.  Upon seeing the offices of the boat, I was flooded instead with residual fear.

We had not done anything wrong, and this time in Goma was so different than the last in 2009. But as everyone stared at me as we waited for the boat to arrive, I became suddenly paranoid, holding my breath as I saw someone locking eyes with me as he picked up his mobile phone to make a call.

Someone knew, someone recognized us.  Everyone was on the lookout for the me, an imagined fugitive, and they would catch me, red haired.

It was ridiculous, but the choppy waters of the afternoon boat to Bukavu did nothing to settle my queasiness and unease.

Arriving in Bukavu, my first step onto those familiar long greying planks of the dock rocked me, literally and metaphorically, and I found myself suddenly out of breath, remembering having stood on this very dock, hoping against hope that we could get to Goma and get out of Congo.

All I wanted to do was get away from this port, and drive up and away on the too-familiar steep driveway into town and just escape from the panicking memories, but our driver had not yet arrived, and my roaming internet, courtesy of my Rwandan SIM card, had finally run out.

I sat close to the DGM's desk, trying to calm myself and stop from being silly.  I did get a chuckle from his official "sign," an 8.5" x 11" piece of white paper with the letters DGM written in pen, and taped to the bars of the windows next to his desk.

Our driver finally arrived, and I prepared myself for the long ride to Lwiro Sanctuary -- again, retracing our steps from 2009.  In 2009, it had been an arduous stressful road with the DGM from the airport "monitoring" us as we headed to his larger offices in Bukavu Town, while we attempted to find things to talk with him about without revealing incriminating details.  During the 2.5 hours of the trip, it was quite a feat to have accomplished.

Since 2009, most of the road between Bukavu and Lwiro has been beautifully repaved, I'm told, by Chinese contractors, so imagine my surprise when we arrived at the main house in slightly less than 50 minutes.

Our colleagues were outside -- including dear Cleve -- and we opened a bottle of champagne to celebrate his birthday, back again together in the wilds of Congo.  It is sometimes hard to realize that we have been friends now for 10 years.

Much like our first trip in Congo, Adam and I went to sleep our first night back in the country in a twin bed, ensconced in darkness, at a very early hour, with no electricity and no internet.  As the rain fell hard in the night, I dreamed of chimpanzees.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Congo, you missed the boat

I have not been to Congo since 2011, and, despite my experience and knowledge, heading back to the Goma border today, my heart raced as I tried to mentally brace myself for whatever might come.

Sure, I had all my paperwork in order, my visa already freshly stamped in my passport, but Adam was coming in on this new "tourist visa" offered by Visit Virunga, and the only promise he had was some printed paper and an email that literally said,
"This is the document you need for you to cross smoothly.  Print them out and your reservation to show at the border."
We had been staying in the border town of Gisenyi, in Rwanda, at the home of my friend Christina, whom I have known since 2003 when we both worked at the Jane Goodall Institute in DC. She dropped us at the border, and it was still dark, barely 5am.

The lights flickered on and off in the pedestrian crossing.  As we eyed the Congolese side, I saw hundreds of boys and men, running, screaming, just across the barrier.

"What's happening over there?" I asked the Rwandan gate guard, "Sports?" I added, hoping to be right.

"I don't know," he grunted in response.

Maybe my problem is that, when I see people screaming in a country I know to be unpredictable, I keep walking toward the commotion.  Because I did.

Apparently on Sundays, there is some kind of sports club that does their exercises in the middle of the road, right next to the border.

Everything was in order with my visa, but for Adam to be issued a tourist visa, the boss needed to arrive, and here it was 5:30am and he was nowhere to be found.  Though the border has only recently been opened 24 hours, there is no communication about which services are offered during what hours, so there was not even clarity about what time this boss was meant to arrive to begin with.

The principle guard was going to call him, but said he had no credits on his phone, so he used my phone instead.  I don't ever mind having the private mobile number of DGMs (directors of general migration).

It was still not even 6am, so, despite having reservations for the 7:30am boat to Bukavu, I figured that we still had plenty of time.

As time passed, the darkness slipped away, leaving the morning in a sepia tone as we watched Congolese youths exercising in the road. Somewhere in the distance, a radio played Abba's "Dancing Queen" and a guy rollerdanced, swirling his arms and legs elegantly to the tinny beat.

Around 6:45am, I started to worry, because the boss had not yet appeared, and the guards inside seemed disinclined to help.

When I mentioned that I was worried we would miss the boat, one guard told me that it was my fault, for not having arrived the night before to arrange Adam's visa for a 7:30am departure.  Apparently, leaving 2 hours is considered irresponsible.

I asked if the boss could be called again, and the guard told me that if we called him, he would be bothered and upset.  The guard promised that the boss would arrive by 7am.

The minutes ticked by, and 7am came and went. I coordinated with our local organizer that the likelihood that we would make the boat was narrowing, but that once this boss came, we should be through right away.

Of course, the boss arrived, and everything was not okay.  Though Adam had been sent documents, the ICCN (the conservation sector of the government) had not sent over their correlating copies and nothing could be done without their authorization.  My phone had no more credit, and, though the DGM had talked to someone on the phone in the ICCN, it seemed that everyone was confused, and slow, and the possibility of getting into the country at all for Adam was waning alarmingly fast.

The DGM, to his credit, was actually quite nice, which in my experience is unusual.  These kinds of diplomatic acrobatics are always treacherous, because you must be firm in your resolve to get whatever it is accomplished, but sweet enough to get the other person to tell you what it is you need to accomplish.

I managed to wrangle the information about the documents that were missing and, in lieu of waiting all day for someone from the ICCN to bring those documents over, I volunteered to just go by moto myself and get the job done. We had almost no Congolese francs - just enough to get to the boat terminal, but the situation was getting dire.  My colleagues had asked whether I would just take the 7:30am boat and leave Adam to sort himself, but quite frankly, that's not how we roll.

So, though I do not make it a habit, I left Adam at the border, and jumped on a motorcyle to go to the ICCN office in town.  I ran the risk that, because it was a Sunday, that it would be closed, but someone had at least been present to answer the telephone, so I had a hope.

The DGM was even more uncharacteristically kind -- he walked me over to the motorcycle taxi waiting station, looking for a driver he knew, and then explained to him where I needed to go and how much it was going to cost.

I was back on a bodaboda, cruising the lava-strewn streets of Goma again for the first time in a decade.  I clutched my folder of crucial documents, my money, my phone, and my hat -- hoping that I could pull off this last ditch effort to get Adam through, weaving in and out of pedestrian and vehicular traffic alike.

Though the main doors of the office were closed, one of the side doors was open, so I dismounted quickly and ran inside the office.  There was a leisurely man behind a desk, sporting a track suit, and, if it had been him that had received the call, he didn't seem to be in the midst of doing much of anything.

I explained the situation to him, and emphasized that we had been at the border since 5:30am, that we had already missed the boat, and that we needed help.  I had all my many printouts, thankfully, yet he was unable to find Adam in the system at all.

More roadblocks.  I took a deep breath, and worked through what it was that he needed in order to get this job accomplished.  He wanted to wait for his colleague -- who had not yet arrived in the office, but I was not about to play more of the waiting game.  I continued pressing, emphasizing that I knew his big boss, casually mentioning the names of many big players in the ICCN that I have happened to meet and know personally.

I managed to convince him to just put Adam in the system, and then print his documents fresh for the DGM.  Prodding, pushing, slowly, slowly.  In French, petit à petit.

I knew Adam was waiting alone at the border too, and my Rwandan data bundle had just given me the last of its internet, roaming in Congo.

At last, the documents were printed, in color of course, and put into a clean manilla envelope.  I jumped back on the motorbike that had waited for me, exuberant, successful, hopeful that everything would now be alright.

The motorcycle was not allowed to take me all the way to the office, and the driver scowled at me, having had to wait for so long, he expected me to pay him more money.

I passed the manilla envelope through the prison-like bars to the interior office, asking it to be brought directly to the boss.

And then we waited.  Twenty mere minutes later, Adam had a visa, colorful and bright in his little passport.  I could not contain my joy and thanked the boss profusely, mostly because it was such a pleasure, working with someone at the border who was nice.

All in all, it took only 3.5 hours and probably a considerable amount of my life energy, but in Francophone countries, I am always going to work to make sure Adam is okay.  I don't know what would have happened if he had been alone, unable to enter the town to go to the ICCN offices, unable to speak French, but that is a matter I will be taking up with the Visit Virunga people.

One day maybe he'll realize that he should resent me for taking him to the toughest places on Earth, but thankfully today is not that day.

In several hours, we'll be on the boat to Bukavu and to Lwiro Sanctuary, and getting to see the chimpanzees -- the Aketi Five -- that we literally risked our lives to save in 2009.  We have not seen them since then, and I can feel the happiness welling up inside me at the mere thought.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Living in Kenya

Blog followers! Thanks for keeping track of us. We're currently living in Nairobi, Kenya.

You can continue following our expat exploits at

Saturday, September 15, 2012

How Can Technology Save the Great Apes?

Local photographer's photo of chimp hunters, unafraid of repercussions
Internet is ubiquitous in most of the first world. We can tweet about lost dogs, text friends who are in the same room, and Skype our moms from a bonfire in the middle of the woods to wish them a Happy New Year.

As a result, we can stay abreast of current news. Internet technology was instrumental in the coordination of crowd activities in the riots in Egypt. Japanese tweets during the earthquake helped to mobilize response teams and let family members abroad know that their loved ones were safe.

Yet there are areas of the world where no such technology exists. I work in the northern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where even most Congolese mobile providers do not have towers.

The only option for me to get online and transmit the things I saw was through an Inmarsat BGAN that connected directly to a satellite and gave me relatively speedy Internet at an extremely high premium. I had to use it sparingly, since my employers were paying $500 a month for only 100MB of upload and download traffic, 3% of the data I use on my PHONE in a month.

The resulting Internet isolation makes sharing knowledge in these areas difficult, and applying conservation laws and initiatives nearly impossible.

Case in point: during my second field excursion, I passed a convoy of five bicycles carrying elephant meat, distinct because of its particular odor.

Three days later, a team of policemen came by, acting on a report that there had been elephant poachers in the area. The elephant poachers were obviously long-gone, and the policemen, aware that they had no chance of success, instead killed a giant pangolin (another protected species), ate it, and went home.

Now, how could technology remedy these scenarios? It's not with the invention of new technology, but the application of technology that has proven itself SO instrumental in the Western world.

Imagine if we focused on blanketing remote countries like DRCongo with cell towers?

Suddenly, the ability to communicate information quickly and efficiently changes how we work within the field. Researchers could broadcast their findings to their supervisors and other researchers. Sharing of information real-time would enable the sharing of ideas and help identify patterns that could be addressed immediately within the field to aid in conservation projects.

Alerts about illegal activities, orphan trading, or bushmeat could be disseminated easily. Many of the laws designed to protect great apes are NOT being enforced because no one knows they are being broken.

Increasing scientists' ability to transmit their stories publicly can also help to raise awareness for great ape conservation.

With the application of first world mobile technology: the construction and expansion of cellular service and coverage in remote zones that also serve as habitat to some of the most endangered great apes, we can bring communications up to speed and enable ourselves to better protect and predict threats to these important species.